Ciao a tutti! Hi, everybody! Sorry about the hiccup posting last week - by which I mean, no TT last Thursday - but I had a good reason (don't I always?). I've been working hard to get things done, writing-wise, and while I'm still lagging behind, I made some time this week to share another sampling of my biggest WiP ever.
So, with your kind indulgence, I'd like to share
13 Snippets from 27 Stages!
Around me the spectators waved flags and signs and cheered – not only for their favorites, but for every rider coming in. All at once, there were excited shouts and piercing whistles all around. Everyone turned to watch the giant screens on the sides of the road. Renard, the rider Charles thought looked so angry, had cleared the second checkpoint in record time. He was presently burning up the road on the descents out of the park, occasionally leaving the less-daring motorcycle cameramen behind. They weren't willing to take the curves at the same rate of speed.
Clearing a bend in the road to fly down to the straightaway beyond, Renard shot past a rider who'd left the start house a full two minutes ahead of him. The next switchbacks in the road made the crowd gasp, and my heart pounded so hard I could scarcely breathe. Finally he swept past yet another rider and out onto somewhat more open road.
The crowd tensed, watching along the road for him. On the screen another dramatic scene played out. Renard had just surpassed the time of his teammate and fan favourite, Heinrich Brunn – quite easily, by the look of it – and was now making his way toward the finish. The seconds which separated them began to expand: Brunn's time was five seconds longer, ten, twenty. The standings on the screen shifted accordingly. Renard rose higher and higher, from fourth to third to second and then to a clear first-place finish.
My camera all but forgotten, I leaned over the barrier and watched eagerly for his arrival. I needn't have worried about missing him – the roar of the crowd swept along with him as he closed in on the finish line. The sound grew louder and louder still, every possible noisemaker being improvised and then employed. Cheers and shouts which bordered on screams, megaphones used to amplify shouts of joy, inflatable "thundersticks" thwapped together to produce manic, percussive sounds. People clapped their hands and banged on the barriers, jumping up and down.
And then, there he was. I gathered my senses and snapped photos of him approaching the line, one arm raised over his head in a show of jubilation, complete and utter joy on his face.
Back at the hotel, I had two thorough goings-over at the same time. The team masseur worked his magic on my legs – cooling the fire smouldering just beneath my skin – while Jerzy tore into me with a restraint I'd never seen before.
"Grandstanding," he growled, pacing the length of the room. "Shameless grandstanding, Ciccio. I don't approve of such things. It could have cost you time."
"But it didn't," I said, looking up at him from the massage table.
He whirled around and narrowed one eye at me, his signal that I should shut up if I intended to keep all my most precious body parts. The masseur kept his head down and continued working as though the threat weren't hanging in the air amongst us.
"It could have, is what I said. Save the shows for when you join the circus."
The blood drained from my face as shame filled it. He was right. Sure, I'd managed a phenomenal lead – fifty-five seconds ahead of Brunn, forty seconds ahead of Schlessinger and Maxxout, who would be marking my ass as a personal vendetta for sure – but starting tomorrow, the stages would be longer and harder, and I wouldn't be on my own.
"Work with the team, Ciccio, not against them."
I nodded, chastened. Jerzy remained at the foot of the table, behind the masseur, and glared at me before storming off. The masseur glanced up at me with a sympathetic look and I closed my eyes, exhausted.
...we stood at the barriers along the road, along with other spectators waiting for the stage to begin.
The riders wouldn't race within the city limits. They'd ride slowly together behind a car full of Tour officials until they reached a more open part of the road. Everything would get off to a proper start then, likely with a group breaking away from the pack to try and gain time, while the rest sat back and waited for their chances closer to the finish.
As for us, once the riders had gone past, we'd check out of the hotel, then drive our rental car to Castro Verde, where the stage ended. I'd take pictures of the finish, and in the morning I'd photograph the opening of the next stage.
This was the plan for the next few weeks, too.
A ripple of applause made its way toward us, reaching a peak when the peloton passed. I smiled as Renard went by, clad in the royal-blue jersey which marked him as the Tour's current leader. I framed him carefully and took several successive shots while he raised his hand and waved at the crowd on my side of the road. An obviously disgruntled Jürgen Schlessinger of Team Maxxout rode alongside him.
A flare of excitement flashed through me and I continued taking photos of the rest of the pack as it streamed by, southward bound.
The whole event didn't last long. Even with all the behind-the-scenes 'mood' shots I'd captured, Charles and I had only been out for a couple of hours.
"Finally," he said with a sigh. "Now let's get our bags before someone steals them, and find some lunch before the restaurants close for some bloody siesta or something."
"There's plenty of time." I checked my watch for good measure. "It's barely twelve-thirty."
He shrugged and turned in the direction of the hotel. "Let's go to that pub again. It's English-owned and they had a nice fry-up listed on the menu. Could be worth trying."
Turning my head so he couldn't see me roll my eyes, I packed up my things. "If you say so, hon."
"I do." He took me by the crook of my elbow and led me through the crowd. "I suppose this whole travel thing isn't so bad, once you find decent places to eat."
"There are lots of great restaurants in Lisbon, Charles. You just have to be willing to try something different."
"And risk Montezuma's revenge? No thanks."
"That's what you call it in Mexico, I think," I offered in mild protest. A shake of his head dismissed me.
"It's all the same, darling. I don't doubt that some of this lot would do it on purpose."
"I think that's pretty unlikely. I mean, they'd lose business if that were the case."
"Not with the bloody Euro in the marketplace. Now they can do as they please without fear of losing their livelihood."
"You're talking like a businessman again. Couldn't we just play happy tourists and have fun?"
He held the door of the pub open and I stepped reluctantly inside.
"Maybe later," he said. "Right now, I want my fry-up, all right?"
"All right. But I'm having the cozido this time."
"Suit yourself – and best of luck to you."
While I warmed up with my teammates on the stationary trainers alongside the team bus, I puzzled over the lack of communication from Solange. Still no calls in response to mine. No messages, either. An unpleasant voice in the back of my mind insisted something was going on: she'd never gone so long without contacting me before.
When I noticed Rom watching me with open curiosity, I returned my focus to what I was doing. I couldn't afford distraction.
I thought about the route ahead for that afternoon. I closed my eyes and visualized the profile: a few gently undulating hills but mostly flat, with one climb once we were well out of Lisbon. The whole course would run about two-hundred kilometres. Remembering the day before, my mood lightened.
I could do this. I knew it.
Supporters watched while we warmed up, taking photos, calling out good wishes to us. I turned up the volume on my mp3 player and let the percussive techno beat drive me on. I looked up only when my trainer nudged me and motioned for me to adjust my position on the bike.
Shit. Focus, Renard.
I let the music play and narrowed my world to the rhythm of my feet on the pedals and to keeping myself steady on the bike. I concentrated until I didn't hear the music anymore, just the thrumming of energy passing through me to power the bike. My legs pistoned smoothly and the hum of my rear wheel reassured me of my steady pace. The longer I went, the better I felt and the clearer my head became.
"Come on, Abby," Charles said from where he lay under the covers, "let's go to sleep."
I looked at my watch; it was only seven p.m.
"I'm hungry." I stood and got my handbag. "I'm going out for a bite. Do you want me to bring anything up for you?"
Charles groaned in reply and rolled over.
"Fair enough. I'll be back soon."
Key in hand, I eased the door shut and went down to the hotel restaurant. I'd forgotten that the Spanish tend to dine late, with dinner beginning around nine at night. Most of the restaurants, including the one in the hotel, weren't even open yet. I certainly didn't want pub fare so I headed along the street in search of something light.
In the main plaza people mingled and chatted around the fountain and in the cafés and pubs. Fathers played with their children or sat with their wives (or girlfriends) sharing coffee or sweets at the outside café tables.
I felt decidedly out of place, flying solo as I was.
I bought an iced lemonade and sat on a bench in the plaza, wishing I had my camera. What wonderful shots I was missing!
The last of the summer evening light gave the plaza a nostalgic feel. The sepia-toned light cast soft shadows with an almost liquid texture in the fading heat of the day.
Finishing my drink, I decided to go and get my camera. Maybe I could still get some good photos after all. I hurried up to our room and slipped inside quietly, hoping Charles was asleep and would stay that way.
No such luck.
"You're back," he said sleepily.
I stopped, putting my camera bag back on the table. "I thought I might get some photos. It's a beautiful evening."
"No, no… Why don't you come to bed? You can get your little snaps in the morning."
I wanted to protest but I was in no mood to argue. Instead, I went to the window and pulled the curtains closed on the plaza.
My 'little snaps' would just have to wait.
With each crank of the pedals, liquid fire ran through my legs. My skin burned in the late afternoon heat radiating from the tarmac. A grimace carved itself into my face, a death's-head grin for exquisite suffering under the summer sun.
Up ahead, a motorcycle swayed to and fro, going slowly up the steep incline so the camera operator on board could keep filming. In its wake the crowd on either side of the road spilled toward us, swallowing us up in a constantly shifting, screaming mass of humanity – all of whom were too close for comfort.
All the usual chaos of a mountain stage on the Tour d'Europa.
The peloton had broken apart prior to the climb, with the leaders and the better climbers forging well ahead of the pack. The blur of colour and noise on either side of my head was lost to my tunnel vision and the sounds inside it.
"You're doing fine, Ciccio." The voice in my earpiece was Michael, our directeur sportif's-second-in command. "Once this climb is done it's straight down to the bottom for the stretch to Granada."
That we were doing well wasn't news to me. That it wasn't Jerzy's voice in my ear, however, was. Brunn had caught up with me after we'd cleared the previous, rather dodgy, descent, where I'd thought he was well behind me. Now he was recovering on my rear wheel and Rom and Attila were doggedly leading us up the hardest climb of today's stage.
I still had no intention of letting Brunn ride my slipstream all the way into Granada. His job – at least for now – was to help protect me and keep the Royal in my possession as long as possible.
Right now the greater threat was Schlessinger, coming up slowly alongside me. Maxxout's blue-green team colours stood out even in the confusion of the crowd surrounding us. I refused to look his way, knowing his smug expression awaited me.
There was a basso profundo shout from somewhere in the crowd as Schlessinger made a subtle gesture in my direction – something between a wave and an obscenity, I thought – and then he crept upward, first aligning himself with his support and then slyly sidling next to Rom.
I ducked to avoid a carelessly-handled German flag, and heard yet another guttural shout, this time cheering Brunn on. There was no point in responding, no sense in coming any further out of my trance. Some of these people cheered for all of us, which gave the riders the will to dig deeper and make the climb. Others were oblivious to the mayhem they caused while they mugged for the television cameras, and frankly, for the most part, so were we.
We only just made it into Granada before the end of the race. I changed quickly into my walking shorts and left Charles unpacking at the hotel before hurrying to the finish line, camera in hand, still hoping to salvage something of the day. The crowd was raucous and I knew something huge was happening. Fuming over my continued lack of credentials, I pushed through the crowd, trying to get close to the road.
Thanks to a generous group of Germans, I managed to squeeze up to the barriers where I could hold my camera out and snag some shots. I managed just a few as the breakaway group crossed the line, fighting for the stage win in a bunch sprint.
The chanting began soon after the sprint ended. It started out at a moderate tempo, accentuated by handclaps: "Brunn! Brunn! Brunn! Brunn!"
I looked up at the screens showing an overhead shot of the final stretch into Granada. Five cyclists – two of them in Alta VeloCidad's violet and grey colours, one in Maxxout's blue-green, one in the red and blue of Ligne Infinie and Renard in the distinct Royal jersey – had broken away from the peloton and were bearing down on the finish with all their might.
One in particular was swiftly pulling ahead.
At this, the chanting grew louder, and one of the Germans next to me began to pound out a steadily intensifying rhythm on the barrier ahead of us. With every thunderous whap of his hand on the plastic banner taped over the railing, my heart sank lower into my stomach.
"BRUNN! BRUNN! BRUNN! BRUNN!"
I looked up at the times on the screen above the road. Brunn had broken away from Renard and Schlessinger. As I watched the broadcast, the other rider in Alta VeloCidad's colours dropped back, head hung low, slowing while he drifted to the side of the course to wait for the peloton to pick him up. Renard's domestique was exhausted, unable to help him any more.
In spite of the late afternoon heat, my arms were covered in gooseflesh.
I didn't know why I wanted so much for Renard to win, but I did. I wanted it with all my heart.
As one, the crowd turned their attention away from the screen to watch Brunn's actual arrival. His name was no longer being chanted, the crowd was screaming it, the noise riotous and manic until my heart raced so hard I could barely keep my camera in hand. I managed to lean out across the barrier to capture his arrival. I squeezed the release and the shutter obligingly snapped shot after shot in quick succession as Brunn lifted his hands from the handlebars of the bike and waved to the tumultuous crowd, long before he crossed the line.
The sky grew dark, the clouds gathering for a late-afternoon shower. Photographers instinctively covered their precious cameras and other equipment as thunder rumbled and rain began to fall. I couldn't speak for the others, but I was slightly relieved. In the muggy mid-afternoon heat, the rain brought some relief after standing out on the tarmac for so long. The rainfall was short, but intense, over almost as quickly as it had begun, leaving shallow puddles to reflect the reemerging sunlight.
As the helicopters hovered overhead, harbouring the arrival of the riders, more photographers assembled until the lines of our designated box seemed completely arbitrary. A final few arrived at a dead run, one of them vaulting the barrier to take a place directly in front of me.
"Hey!" I jostled him out of my way, gesturing angrily toward the road and the line at my feet. He shook his head and made as though to take the spot again, before another man reached out for his arm and tugged him roughly to one side. I glanced over to find my supporter was the French photographer who had sneaked me inside the barriers a couple of days ago. He smiled warmly and gave me a wink and I couldn't help smiling in return.
The crowd noise ratcheted up a notch – or ten – and all of the photographers took their positions. Some lay on the ground sniper-style while others, like me, knelt precariously in a line, aiming our cameras down the final stretch. The rest stood waiting, ready to jump or shift as necessary to capture their shots.
A rising roar of excitement rolled toward us, chasing the bunch sprint as it thundered our way. The battle for the stage win was fierce, and even though I'd photographed a few finishes already, this was the first time I'd seen one from this point of view: through my lens, it seemed that they were barrelling straight toward me with no sign of slowing. Several riders skidded through the water still on the road, losing control of their bikes before they could slow down.
One moment I was taking photos of riders crossing the finish line, the next I was backing up and stumbling over the feet of one photographer and being knocked to the ground by the elbow of another.
I landed hard, breath wooshing out of my lungs even as I held my camera aloft in an attempt to protect it. I was aware of equipment scattered around me – lenses, battery packs, memory cards – some of it mine, some of it theirs. Then the base of a crowd-control barrier was at my back, the sharp metal edge of one foot biting into me.
Winded, I lay on the pavement, my eyes closed, one hand clutching my side as though I could press the pain so deep I wouldn't feel it any more. I was dizzy; taking quick, short breaths had pushed me to the point of hyperventilation.
A moment later the sun broke through the cloud, warming my face before shadow settled over me.
Brunn and I were riding at speed amongst the peloton, but the group containing the sprinters was well ahead of us, gunning for the finish at the end of this flat stage. From Valencia to Torreblanca, Alvaro had sparred with Teodoro, promising his own victory to even the score with his brother. Teodoro had instead assured us all of his own imminent victory, going so far as to predict a one-second gap at the finish.
Braggadocio, all of it – but the good-natured teasing between the brothers was enough to entertain the rest of us for the length of the stage.
A burst of shrieking and screaming across the team's radio frequency was difficult to comprehend. Either Jerzy had just slipped over the edge into insanity, or somewhere closer to the line, one or more of my teammates had made a tactical mistake.
Brunn glanced at me, his expression inscrutable, save for a flicker of concern in his eyes before he turned back to the matter at hand.
Listening to the invective spewing over the airwaves, I had the feeling things weren't exactly going according to plan at the finish.
We pressed forward, the final roundabout looming ahead when Attilio gave a shout and bumped shoulders with another rider who was riding too close as the curve tightened.
Rom broke through the last few cyclists blocking us and I followed close on his wheel, the two of us making our way up to the head of the pack to lead the group through the roundabout and down the short final stretch.
We breezed our way down Avinguda de Sant Jordi, avoiding the concrete lip of the island separating the lanes of the road, but other riders weren't so lucky, judging from the shouts of the crowd and the skree of titanium on pavement which followed the final turn.
Rom fell back behind me in short order and Brunn was soon at my shoulder, a slight grin on his face the only indication that he was pleased with how things had gone. As far as I could tell, there wasn't even a hint of curiosity regarding Jerzy's previous rant, not one iota of concern for Alvaro or Teodoro or for how they'd fared.
We'd find out soon enough.
I did my best to remain professional as Renard stepped out to receive his Royal for the stage. A strange melancholy came over me as he stepped off the podium and shook hands with the town officials and other guests, before making his way backstage.
I thought of his expression when he'd checked on me after the crash and felt a slow melting inside. Ridiculous. A schoolgirl's crush, and I was – what? – at least ten years older than he was. At least.
I made a mental note to look up his birthdate online when I got back to the hotel. Or maybe I'd look it up on my netbook from the bar before I went up to the room. I didn't really feel like enduring any snide comments from Charles when I returned to Barcelona.
Then again, maybe he wouldn't be making them anymore, now that I'd called him on his "phone mate" and everything.
Drifting back to my car, I paused as a shiver ran along my spine in a light, tingling caress. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I turned toward the Village, where the remainder of the crowd milled around just outside the team areas.
There was no-one there, but I would have sworn I'd felt his gaze on me, if just for a split second. I clucked my tongue dismissively. I'm getting dotty in my old age, I reckoned, and resumed my walk to the car.
When the feeling came again, I took out my camera, aimed it over my shoulder, and clicked the shutter. I'd examine the shot when I got to Barcelona.
James sat on the edge of the big bench, his head hung low, only chancing a glance at Jerzy as he moved away. He caught my eye and his expression was one of purest misery. He'd fucked up and he knew it.
And so did Jerzy.
"It was stupid! Careless! What the fuck were you thinking?"
"Jer-" Alvaro didn't get the chance to finish.
"Where was your focus? On your stupid jokes with your brother? When you race you aren't brothers, do you understand? You are teammates. You are riders, nothing more!"
A torrent of rather colourful Spanish followed, and Teodoro, seated next to James, winced.
Adrie was reflected in the back window of the bus even though he stood just out of my sight. When Jerzy turned on James, Adrie's arms were folded across his chest in the posture of someone about to be sick.
"Sloppy! I should send Goosh out there tomorrow in your place, if I only could. He'd do a better job, if that's the best you can do. You had it! You fucking had it, and then you let the American get it? The American? It's his first fucking Tour and your third, and you still let him by? You fucking Brits are useless!"
I couldn't bear to watch any more but I couldn't avoid hearing it.
"Did you see how he was riding?" Adrie shouted back, and the murmur of conversation in the main cabin of the bus silenced. "It was too dangerous to hold the line, Jerzy. If James hadn't let him go, he'd have taken the whole lot of us out! The pack was too goddamn tight!"
"I watched the video, Adrie. I watched it. Where the fuck was your defence?"
"I shouldered as hard as I could, and he came back with more," Adrie answered calmly. "That little fucker is crazy. The finish was suicidal in that last turn – you saw how many got taken out by the kerb – and, frankly, I thought I'd like to end the stage without a busted collarbone or a broken neck."
Another silence, this time including the group at the back of the bus. Only Brunn had ever been so bold with Jerzy in the past, and he got a special pass by being his best friend.
"You've been drinking...?" Charles put his cell phone on the bedside table and gave me a quizzical look.
"Not much. Just a little wine with dinner. You know, as you do." I shrugged and went through my suitcase, digging out my nightgown and slippers.
"Are you upset about something?"
The disingenuousness of the question was insulting.
"Charles, how do you play at ignorance so well?"
"Come on, Abby." He stood and came over to my side of the bed to stare down at me while I changed clothes.
"You can't honestly be this oblivious." I looked up and met his eyes, daring him to pretend further.
Instead, he returned to his side of the bed. After a moment's silence, he sank down onto the bed and sighed. "This is why I thought we should consider…"
"I've already told you why I don't want that." I got under the coverlet, and Charles kept his back to me.
"I'd just feel better, Abby, if I thought you had someone with you when I'm away."
"No, you'd feel better if I said you could have someone with you when you're away. That's what this is all about."
"No, it isn't."
"For all I know, you already have."
I turned onto my side and resisted the urge to sigh, too.
"I didn't want you to feel this way about it," he said.
"How else would I feel? You're talking about taking a lover." I turned to face him and found him staring at the carpet, shaking his head. "And me, giving you the okay."
"No, I'm not."
My throat tightened and I got out of bed. I stood up straight and smoothed down my nightgown, trying to keep my hand from shaking. I held up the other hand and started counting off: "You put down the phone when I come in the room, you stay late at work even if you don't have to, and you get more phone calls than you need from work…"
"That's not proof of anything, Abby. Circumstantial at best."
"Give me time..." I gathered my clothes and piled them into the laundry bag. "I'm sure I'll dig up ample evidence soon enough."
Charles said nothing, just exhaled softly behind me. I got back into bed and pulled the blanket up to my shoulder after putting my back to him. Silence stretched out between us until he switched off the light and lay down.
The pub was practically empty and I wasn't really surprised. The team made up the majority of the patronage of the hotel, and most of them were either with their families or attending the festivities in the city centre.
The server led us to a circular booth in one corner. I liked the enforced privacy of the set-up right away. Between the high edges of the booth seat, the plentiful greenery scattered around the top and the low lighting in the pub, there was little chance of someone spotting us.
Abby ordered a white wine and the server looked expectantly at me.
"Una birra, per favore," I said, figuring today I'd earned at least a beer.
We sat in silence, which gave me a chance to consider a few things. First, there was the fact I'd repeatedly run into Abigail in the pubs. The second thing was that I always found her alone, in spite of her claim she was married. I'd yet to see this phantom husband, though she said he'd somehow played a part in her photographing the Tour.
Any mention of her husband saddened her – that much was clear. When we discussed the stage, or I told her about events on the road, her mood improved. Every time she laughed – or even just smiled – I felt myself getting drawn in deeper than ever.
This is bad. Very, very bad.
My heart clenched tight with understanding: married woman or no, I wanted her. Never mind the Solange debacle. Never mind her mythical Charles, wherever he was. I wanted Abigail White, and I couldn't have her.
"Federico? What are you thinking?"
I had to laugh. Why do women always ask that? If men were ever honest enough to answer with the truth, women would never come near us again.
"What's so funny?" she asked. "Tell me."
"You really don't want to know."
"Sure I do."
Her wide eyes searched mine, and I had no choice but to be honest. Maybe it would be best if she did go away.
"For a while I was thinking about the next stage," I said. "Then I thought about how I keep finding you alone in these places. Then I wondered where your husband really is. And then…?" I shrugged, hoping to make light of my next thought. "I started thinking how much I want to kiss you."
I looked down at my drink, not wanting to see her disappointment. I'd had enough of that in the past week to last me a lifetime.
Well, there you have them: 13 Snippets from 27 Stages
- due out this summer (or sooner, if I can manage it)!I sure hope you've enjoyed them.And in addition to all the lovely photos accompanying these excerpts, I'll share one more pretty photo.Of course, it's of my favorite cyclist, who provided much of the inspiration for the story.And you know what?I reckon many of you will understand why that is.
Fabian Cancellara, Swiss cyclist. General hottie.
Ciao for now!
I've been trying to write as much as possible this week, so I didn't have much time to plan a Thursday Thirteen. On short notice, this is what I've come up with:
13 Excerpts from 27 Stages
1) "Oh, no. I've left my mobile in the room." Charles patted his trouser pockets and stood next to our table, looking around as though he'd dropped something.
"Why not leave it? I mean, we're only going to be down here a short while. Surely you could just return any missed calls?"
He hesitated, his hands momentarily frozen over his pockets, his expression blank. I understood at once the source of his agitation. He was expecting a call.
Scratch that. He was expecting her call.
"Fine," I said, pretending not to notice his guilty composure. "Go on up. I'll take my time over the menu, then."
Another hesitation, and then he was walking away from our table with obvious restraint.
I sat quietly, unsure how to feel. Charles had never before been quite so transparent about her. Part of me was quite hurt by this, and yet part of me was relieved. Of course, now I had my own mental diversion, and while it wasn't exactly the same it did seem to ease the pain a bit.
There was scarcely more than a moment for me to consider this before a sizeable group of men passed through the dining room and headed toward the exit. Stunned, I sat and watched them file by, chatting amongst themselves while their names ticked off a mental list, one by one: Meijer, Browdowski, Mendoza, Mendoza…
How was it possible we'd stayed in the same hotel and I hadn't even known it?
So much for any "psychic connections," then. I had to smile at my silliness, and that was when Renard passed by the table, one hand raised in a subtle greeting. My smile stayed in place even as my heartbeat sped up and my own hands shook on my lap.
He didn't seem to notice – he only smiled and continued out to the lobby. He glanced back at me before stepping through the doorway, and I heard the rumbling of what I presumed to be the team bus outside the front doors of the hotel.
2) In retrospect, the benevolence of being granted a few free hours the night before now made sense. It had been our last chance at that kind of freedom.
"No way should that stage have taken us out like it did. You've all been letting things slide, acting on your own, not following orders." Jerzy turned his cold gaze to Rom, who ducked his head onto his chest. No understanding of English was necessary to know how he'd screwed up, and no doubt the message hit home. "This is what happens. As of today, you get one hour of free time after dinner. That's all."
Adrie's scowl behind Jerzy's back surely hadn't gone unnoticed by the rest of the team, but no-one would rat him out. Any rider with a family, or at the very least a girlfriend, was bound to resent such a limit on the time we could spend with them privately.
With surprising calm, Adrie cleared his throat, and Jerzy slowly turned to face him. James tensed next to me, and Alvaro, seated next to Adrie, shifted his seat away to one side after a skyward glance.
"You have something to add, Major?"
"What about our families? An hour a day is hardly enough time to spend with my wife and my daughter, and we all know there will be days we don't see them at all, anyway."
Silence spooled out in the meeting room, and I wondered if anyone else had neglected to breathe, as I had. As quietly as I could, I drew a long breath, waiting to hear Jerzy's response.
"I'm being generous. I could make it one hour a week," he said, and turned again to face the rest of us. "You all need discipline; that's clear. You should be supporting the team leaders, and instead, you fell apart!"
I couldn't help bristling at the plural. Leaders? I screamed mentally. That's the whole fucking problem!
"As far as families go – I don't want to keep any of you away from them. If you want to be with your family, go." He gestured toward the door and Adrie dropped his gaze to the table. "If you stay, you need to remember this: I am your father, your brother, your best friend – even your mother! I am your family. This team is your family. You depend on them, and they depend on you."
The composure with which he spoke was chilling. This was not ranting Jerzy, not blustering or manic Jerzy.
This was Jerzy at his angriest, and I'd never been more aware of walking on a knife-edge than I was then. The rest of the team seemed to be, too. No one spoke, whispered or so much as coughed in the silence that followed.
"Get out to the bus. Now."
Jerzy stalked away, and we all stood, not a chair scraping across the tiled floor before we filed out as quietly as possible.
3) "You can give him my apologies, if you like," he said, not looking at me.
I laughed and shook my head. "He'd never believe me if I tried to."
"What, that I apologized?"
"No, that I sat here with you as if we knew each other or something. He'd never believe it. I mean, I hardly believe it myself."
He smiled again and my heart lifted.
"We do know each other, don't we? You're Abigail. I'm Federico."
"Acquaintances at best," I said, drawing the words out and shaking my head. I didn't want to delude myself into believing anything too far-fetched, even if he was encouraging it.
"Yes, but…. It has to start somewhere, doesn't it?"
He licked his lips, took another drink and set his glass back on its coaster with exaggerated care.
"Friendship," he said with an air of finality, his gaze meeting and holding mine. "And don't you think these coincidences are enough to show maybe we could be friends?"
Or something else altogether, if your eyes are saying what I think they are.
I pushed the idea aside and tried to focus on the inherent sweetness of the statement he'd just made. Friendship was a lovely option, wasn't it?
"Well, going back to the hotel thing…" I began, unsure why I wanted to return to the topic.
"Where is the team staying tonight? That is to say, I doubt we're in the same place again, but it's probably a good idea to be sure."
He laughed quietly, nodding, and I understood he wanted to put me at ease. Something changed in that moment and he ceased to be "Renard" in my mind, becoming "Federico" instead.
That's one step closer to something, but what?
4) For a short while, Brunn and I rode shoulder to shoulder, chatting amiably. He asked whether I was still considering moving to Italy, and if so, where? I said I hadn't changed my mind, but was undecided about where exactly I wanted to go.
Behind me, Schlessinger barked a short, disapproving laugh. I glanced back at him and returned my focus to the ride, only to have him pull alongside. I paid no attention to him, but let him get ahead of me and take his turn at the head of the group.
Brunn looked back at me, shrugged, and when the time came he took over at the head of the group again.
"You never did answer my question, Ciccio," Schlessinger said, dropping behind me once more.
"Which question was that?" I asked, filling my voice with as much bored disinterest as I could.
"How's your girlfriend?"
A ripple of chuckles went through the group around me, but I pretended not to notice. Evidently, word had gotten around.
Now I understood who had sent the magazine to me at the hotel.
I took my time answering him, prolonging my silence by taking a long drink from my water bottle, then meticulously replacing it in its cage. It was my turn to lead again, and I did, noting Brunn's questioningly-raised eyebrow as I passed him.
I waited until my turn was over, and then Schlessinger's, before responding.
"She's fine. I wish her the best."
5) "I thought we were supposed to be on holiday. Or at least that you were treating it like that," I said, sitting opposite him. "You never said you'd be working the whole time."
Charles rubbed his eyes slowly, then lowered his hand to the tabletop. "Abby…"
I stiffened. What on earth was coming, now?
He took a deep breath and looked out the window again. "I might have to go home."
"Why?" I asked, my heart pounding so hard it hurt. Was he going to tell me about the other woman? Was he going to ask for a divorce? Should I be feeling almost eager to hear, one way or the other?
"Work, darling. Always for work."
There were no words. I sat in silence for what felt like an eternity before a question finally formed.
"When were you thinking of going?"
"I thought we'd leave from Torino."
"Of course, 'we'. I couldn't possibly leave you here alone, following that bunch of miscreants –"
"I'm not going home. Not until the Tour is over."
"Abby, be reasonable-"
"I am. If you need to go home, then go home, but I'm not going with you. I'm following this through, all the way to Paris."
He sighed again, and I resisted the urge to stand and slap him. "Abby, Abby… Of all the things to see through, you pick this?"
For just a moment, I hated him. The moment passed, but it passed slowly.
6) My confidence grew with every step I took, and by the time I passed through the lobby, a sense of invincibility had begun to sink in. All these years, I'd convinced myself that Jerzy had some sort of sixth sense going for him. He'd caught so many of my teammates when they'd misbehaved, hadn't he? Why the devil wasn't he down here now, dragging me back upstairs and threatening to break my legs or something?
Because I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, I thought. Not even the desk clerks saw me go by on my way to the front doors.
I stepped out and watched the entrance of the restaurant across the street. I was suddenly sure that were I to simply start walking across the street – without so much as a glance in either direction – no harm would come to me.
Still, I checked. No point in pushing my luck and getting mown down by a bus.
Once I'd crossed I glanced back at my own hotel, fully expecting to see Jerzy at his window, scowling down at me. Or perhaps waiting at the front door with a hangman's noose in his hand. Or the bucket.
I shivered a little, unable to stop, and then went inside.
7) "I'm glad I found you, Abigail."
"Abby," I said, my lips forming my own name in spite of the fact I couldn't feel them, any more. "My friends call me Abby."
That smile again – innocent, not sly or seductive – and I couldn't pull my gaze away. I was distantly aware of the heat rising to my cheeks. And a few other places, as well.
My heart was pounding to the point I almost couldn't hear when he spoke again. The din of rushing blood in my ears and the rattling of suitcases as they were pulled through the lobby behind me had rendered me nearly deaf.
Then he rested his hand on my arm, just below the short sleeve of my t-shirt, and I snapped out of my daze.
"Abby," he said, my name sounding awkward as he used it for the first time. "Could I buy you a coffee, or something? I'd like to see more of your photos, if I may." His eyes flicked in the direction of my computer bag, and I followed a moment behind, uncomprehending.
"Oh," I said, half-laughing as I understood at last. "Of course you can. We could go in the restaurant here, or in the bar in the back. I think they might have some booths free."
"Perfect." He started across the foyer with me, one hand rising to touch the back of my arm, just above my elbow. It was an innocent, gentlemanly gesture, nothing more, but it sent a small shock through me.
8) My heart was beating triple-time as I hurried across the street and into my hotel. I put my hand in my pocket and felt my keycard there, then took it out and grasped it tight in one hand. Scanning the lobby to reassure myself, I went straight to the stairwell and unlocked the door with my keycard, then took the stairs two at a time, bounding up as quietly as I could.
When I reached my floor, I paused, forcing myself to take slow, deep breaths until I could hear the air-conditioning hum echoing around me. There was no other sound on the floor, as far as I could tell.
I opened the door carefully and poked my head out, harbouring a momentary, insane desire for a mirror to check around the corners with. No sign of Jerzy. He wasn't lurking behind the decorative ficus, nor was he standing by the door to my room. The corridor was completely empty.
Easing the stairwell door shut behind me, I took a few tentative steps toward my room, the keycard against my palm now slicked with sweat.
More silence. Only silence. The quiet padding of my trainers across the carpeted floor barely registered. A sudden, blatting fart – reminiscent of an angry duck's quack! – made me jump as I passed James and Phil's room.
I bit down on my lower lip, hard, to stop the laughter which threatened to erupt. I didn't know if I wanted to laugh because of the noise, or because the noise had actually startled me.
I had to be crazy. This was the biggest risk I'd ever taken – none of my races even compared to this. I knew as well as anyone that Jerzy's wrath wasn't something to be trifled with – contract or no contract, if he wanted you off the team, you were gone.
And here I'd acted against his very explicitly-expressed wishes. I'd broken one of his biggest rules by defying the team curfew.
9) Hollowness carved itself into my stomach at the thought. Could I really be so pragmatic? Could I really let him go so easily? Living alone was something I could handle, no doubt – I was already doing so, wasn't I? – but truly being alone?
I shivered at the thought as Charles replaced the receiver in the cradle of the phone. The bed sank beneath his weight as he shifted and stood up, and I pulled the covers up over my shoulder. I listened to him padding to the window, heard the shick of the curtains opening and the soft patter of rain against the windowpane.
"Abby, you need to get up. We'll want to leave for Avignon as soon as possible this morning."
I ducked under the covers a bit more, sighing. He was right. The stage was starting there today, and it wasn't likely we'd arrive early enough to beat most of the crowds. Perhaps I'd have to shoot further along the route instead?
I shook my head. The logistics alone made it unlikely that Charles would agree to change any plans at this late hour.
With a groan, I extracted myself from the covers and shuffled across the room. My lack of sleep the night before was going to be problematical. Charles laughed softly behind me and I turned to face him.
"What?" I asked, allowing myself a smile at the sound of his gentle mirth.
"You're becoming an old fart like me, darling. The late nights aren't agreeing with you as much as they used to, eh?"
"I guess not." I nodded, stepping onto the cool, tiled floor of the bathroom. "Maybe I just need to get back into the habit?"
He stood in the doorway while I took off my nightgown. I felt his gaze, steadily assessing, slide over me while I turned on the water in the tub and pulled the lever to send the water up to the showerhead. I stood straight and faced him, making no attempt to hide myself. Why should I? He'd seen everything a thousand times before, and had shown his appreciation just a few days ago, hadn't he?
And yet… The desire to cover myself up, a perverse demure impulse, flitted through me. The words were there, on the tip of my tongue, waiting to be spoken.
Who are you? Where did you come from? Why did you go?
And the worst, most painful question of all came as he turned away, half-smiling.
What did I do wrong?
10) I wondered briefly how Schlessinger thought he might fare on the descents this time. Would he manage his nerves better this time around? In the team meeting on the bus that morning, Jerzy had alluded to the descents as being of key importance. I was climbing well – stupendously well, in fact – and a touch of that sense of invincibility returned as I worked my way up the ascent.
I don't really believe in luck – good or bad – but I couldn't deny the feeling which had wrapped itself around me this morning. Aware I was smiling again, I wondered if I looked as oblivious and simpleminded as I feared I might.
The day came into sharp focus: the green of the mountains, the white peaks in the distance, the deep grey of the tarmac rolling slowly beneath our wheels all had a clarity which I would have sworn wasn't there moments before. The air itself was crisp and sharp, magnifying the approaching summit until it seemed as though we were there a thousand times over.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, her voice was whispering her name to me.
She was in Grenoble by now. She was waiting.
I had to reach her. Forget everything else.
And if I happened to snatch a little time and close the gap a bit? If I happened to get a bit closer to the Royal in the process? All the better.
11) There were still three weeks before the race was over, too. Could I really do it on my own? And if I did, what would I be coming home to? In a way, it was almost better not knowing. At least then I could imagine whatever I wanted, and deal with the reality later.
It was a foolish way to address the situation, but there it was. I'd made my choice by not saying anything. It was already too late. Whenever I told him (tomorrow? the day after? the day after that, when he left?), there was no way to know how he'd react.
We'd have to hash this out eventually, but I was reluctant to set it all in motion.
Or I could just go home with him and be done with it.
I shook my head. No, that would never do. I'd hate myself forever if I did. How many dreams did I have to let die to find the dream I wanted most? I'd given up the idea of children when his career made it clear I'd be raising them alone, and now it was nearly too late. I'd passed on owning a photo lab in our small town because he felt it was too risky and besides, "The chemist's got that covered, hasn't he?" Artistic photography? Too arty-farty and I'd need a proper patron in order to make it work. "And what would you photograph, anyway? Backsides and landscapes?"
I sighed, remembering. He'd methodically shot down each and every one of them with stunning accuracy. I still didn't understand why he'd gone along with the Tour project. Maybe because the magazine had liked my demo shots and put up some funding for this project? Or maybe because his job had all but pushed him to take a holiday in the first place?
Most likely he'd thought I'd get bored and abandon it, just like I'd done with other half-hearted projects in the past; furniture refinishing, an attempt at watercolour paintings of landscapes, volunteering at the local crafts club.
But this was different. This was my passion reborn, but he couldn't see it at all.
He couldn't see the changes in me, either. I reckon we'd grown too far apart for him to see me clearly any more.
12) "I saw what happened with Solange. Her pictures are all over the 'net right now."
Was it possible I had no idea what she was talking about? Did she mean the AvantMode – if one pardoned the unfortunate choice of word – spread?
Abby blushed again, deeper this time.
"I saw the photos of her with that Conway person. They were on the entertainment news on TV, too."
"They were?" I asked, strangely incredulous.
Abby nodded, guiltily this time. "Yes. Some sort of art show or premiere or something? I hadn't heard anything about that until today. You're taking it rather well, though."
"Well, you know. I wish her the best. Really, I do. She'd never have been happy with me, anyway."
I don't know why I said it, but as soon as I had, I realized it was true. Solange had hated cycling – she hated most sports, except for figure skating and diving competitions – and she had admitted it from the start. That was, once her gig as a Tour d'Europa podium girl was over, of course. It wouldn't have done for the public to know that the smiling girl in the royal blue dress, giving kisses to each cyclist on the podium, thought that the sport itself was boring and the competitors were egotistical bastards (her words, not mine).
"How can you say that?" Abby's face held a sincere confusion which I found both puzzling and endearing. "You shouldn't be so hard on yourself."
"I'm not being hard on myself," I said, and a small chuckle wormed its way out of me. "Honestly. It's very kind of you to defend me, though. Even if it is against myself."
"Well, you seem like a decent enough person to me. I mean, you're nice, you're accessible, you're attra-" She cut herself short, but not before I understood what she was about to say.
The ever-deepening flush in her cheeks only confirmed it.
"Maybe I'm not so nice, Abby."
"What do you mean?" she asked, turning the computer so she could see it without looking up at me.
"The fact I've hardly thought about her the last couple of days should mean something, shouldn't it?"
13) I was thankful Charles had gone up to the room to do some work, particularly glad he hadn't put up much fuss about the fact one of the teams was staying there. That they would be on the bottom floors and we would be at the top seemed to help, too.
The team came into the lobby while I was sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs by the dining hall entrance, just passing the time before I went up to get changed for dinner. I put away my computer, resisting the urge to go up to Federico and…do what? Throw my arms around him and kiss him? Ask him to take me away?
I shook my head and laughed to myself. Ridiculous. I'm absolutely ridiculous.
But when I got up to leave, he turned around and spotted me as though he'd expected me to be there all along.
Stopping short, I stood there, his gaze holding mine across the lobby's parquet flooring and wooden furnishings. In spite of the chaos of a couple dozen people checking in at once, the lobby seemed silent and still. He broke eye contact with me to face the receptionist and take the keycard she'd slid across the desk to him, and then he turned and pushed through his teammates in order to come over and join me.
A swift rush of dizziness came over me and I realized I'd stopped breathing for a moment. I drew a long, deep breath before he stepped up to me, smiling his usual sweet, warm smile.
And there you have an additional thirteen excerpts from 27 Stages
.I hope you've enjoyed them.I'm working hard to get the book finished and then, of course, out for all you fine readers to enjoy in its entirety.In the meantime, I'll have to give the ladies a little something to tide them over.Just a little somethin'-somethin'.
Oh, look! Bikes! :) Ciao for now!
Ack! It's happened again - I've been swamped with projects and commitments and haven't done a proper Thursday Thirteen. <hangs head in shame>
That said, I'd like to share some samplings from my new novella, Alternate Rialto, out now on Smashwords, which is a prequel to my novel Ask Me if I'm Happy! So here are
1) Ypsilanti, Michigan was nothing like this. For that reason alone, Emily Miller knew the scene before her should have been perfect. Beyond the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, the sun faded from the sky. Streaks and splashes of orange, pink and red darkened and drained down into the sea. The water of the lagoon deepened to violet and then to indigo at the base of the dock – the Molo, she corrected herself – while the black-and-white striped shirts of the gondoliers glowed ghostlike over the sleek black boats drifting silently toward the Bridge of Sighs.
With a little imagination, it would be easy to be lost in a fantasy of timelessness and forget that it was Nineteen-Ninety-Eight. Forgetting the past year – or at least to forget the last six months or so – would be a blessing, anyway.
2) Dreamlike, watery voices drifted and echoed, calling to each other and reflecting off the walls in a language Emily didn't understand. Dull splashes followed, accompanied by jeering, teasing shouts before the rumble of an engine rattled the windows in their frames for a moment. She squinted through sleep-heavy eyes and behind the fine lace curtains of her window made out a woolen grey sky over the rooftops of the next building.
3) She shook her head and paused atop a bridge to watch a pair of gondolas pass at the end of the canal. Raising her camera she framed the shot, feeling a momentary embarrassment for taking such a "touristy" photo.
Ah, what the hell? Why not? It's not like I'll ever come here again.
Another gondola passed beneath the bridge a moment later and she stilled herself, waiting for the perfect image. An errant breeze lifted her skirt just as the gondola emerged. The gondolier looked up at her, and Emily dropped her free hand down to protect her modesty. His blue eyes flashed with mirth at her reaction before he turned back to focus on the task at hand, taking his crooked grin out of her view.
She couldn't resist the smile that tugged at the corners of her mouth before she crossed to the other side of the bridge.
Finally, a reaction that's just for me - but only because of a panty-flash? That figures.
4) "Emily." His soft voice carried above the sounds of the crowd to feel like a caress in the relative silence after the engine's shutdown. "Let me help you up."
Stone steps ascended from the water to the walkway, and Jacopo's steadying hand kept her from losing her footing on the slippery surface. Once on the pavement he held her hand secure in his own, placing his other hand at the small of her back to steer her along the bridge.
In spite of herself, she was compelled to pause at the top and push through the crowd that had gathered along the wall to have their photographs taken with the Grand Canal as the backdrop. She wished that she had brought her camera with her, but smiled to think how silly her bulky camera bag would have looked with her outfit.
"Che peccato," Jacopo said, taking her hand and drawing her away from the wall. "What a shame. If only we had a camera to make your photo."
Her eyes widened at the statement.
"Besides," he continued when she remained silent, "this light is quite flattering to you." His smooth fingertips slid from her hand to her wrist and back again. "It is like your skin is made of roses."
The thudding of her heart had to be noticeable; it was thumping so hard in her chest. Emily had a vision of his lips on her wrist, just grazing there before continuing along her arm, and she shook her head to dispel it.
This is going to be quite an evening, I'm sure of it.
Her silence didn't seem to disturb him in the least. Jacopo gazed wordlessly into her eyes for a moment before he took her hand in his once more and led her off the bridge. He guided her down a darkened calle, full of twists and turns, until she lost all sense of direction in the coming dark.
5) Jacopo's eyes held hers over the flickering candlelight. "So, Emily… It is just you and your friend traveling? Why isn't your boyfriend with you?"
Pushing her reflexive scowl off her face at the word "boyfriend," Emily shrugged. "I don't have one."
"No boyfriend? Your lover, then."
His bluntness threw her. How was she supposed to answer that?
Her gaze fell to the tablecloth and she fussed with the placement of her cutlery to avoid meeting his eyes. Cheeks burning, she took a deep breath and spoke.
"No lover, either."
Their host rushed out of the kitchen and set a serving plate between them. Emily noted the assortment of appetizers with a wary eye.
Jacopo picked up her plate and placed a few items on it before handing it back to her. "Capesante, aringa affumicata, patè di fegato," he recited, pointing at each in turn. "Scallops, smoked herring, veal liver patè."
She regarded the offerings for a long moment before reaching for the patè. Might as well try something new.
He filled his own small plate, then ate with his eyes on her all the while.
"No lover?" he asked, continuing as though there hadn't been any interruption.
Emily selected the herring and stuffed it in her mouth. She nodded, then shook her head, unsure of the proper response. Jacopo's smile embarrassed her further and the familiar heat rushed to her cheeks again before she swallowed.
"Nope. No lover. You?" She asked this last with a bravado she wasn't sure she felt. She swallowed another sip of wine and wondered if maybe that was why.
His only answer was a sly grin.
Kim Rossi-Stuart: the inspiration for Jacopo.
6) The streets were virtually empty, the campi deserted. They crossed the Rialto Bridge again, Jacopo guiding her as before, but this time he steered her to a place at the wall. The bridge was aglow, the ghostly pale stone surface softly illuminated by strategically placed lights. They stood and looked out at the reflections on the water which rippled, rose and fell with soft, gentle lapping against the boats moored nearby.
"Emily," he said, his voice scarcely carrying above the soft murmurs of conversation around them. She drew her gaze away from the hypnotic dance of light on water to face him.
Yes? she wanted to ask, but the word never formed on her lips. Instead, his hands framed her face and held her still as he brought his lips to hers in a soft kiss. She raised her own trembling hands to cover his as he kissed her again. At once, the other people vanished, along with the bridge, the water and the city itself.
His hands slipped from under hers to stroke her hair, tangling in the length of it while his kiss deepened. Her heartbeat was distant and remote, somewhere else. There were only his lips, parting hers and lingering while he pulled her to him and held her securely in his embrace. Emily trembled as eagerness, anxiety and need warred amongst themselves, threatening to breach the surface at any moment.
7) After lunch, they strolled across the campo toward the rio where he'd docked the runabout. A narrow bridge spanned the water, with a wrought-iron gate on the campo side and a huge arched wooden door on the other. The elaborate scrollwork of the iron in the gate revealed countless hours of work and a lifetime of training in every fine turn.
Emily longed to have her camera in her hands, to photograph the details of the ironwork.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she asked, trailing her hand along the spirals and twirls to feel the movement in the metal.
"Sì, it is. It is very old, too. At least one hundred years – but it has been treated well and does not rust, unlike others."
She turned to ask how he knew that for sure, but stopped upon seeing the large iron key in his hand. His gaze held hers as he stepped forward and slipped his key into the lock with a rather provocative gesture, a wicked grin on his face all the while.
Her throat went suddenly dry and she swallowed hard, a pleasant tingle sweeping through her body at the unspoken statement in his actions. The sound of the iron key in the lock had an audible heft to it, and she pictured the key pushing the tumblers about to unlock them.
8) "My mother wishes me to marry," he said, his words echoing slightly in the grand room.
Even though she was sitting, Emily's knees went to water. Had she been standing, she would have hit the floor in a graceless slump. As it was, she found herself sliding back to sit in the armchair.
"Really?" she asked, hoping the delay wasn't noticeable.
"Sì, è vero." Jacopo looked up at her at last. "That is; yes, it's true. She is fond of saying that she wishes for me to find a wife, before she dies. She wishes for me to be an honest man, with an honest woman." His expression was full of dark humor, a bitter turn to his mouth.
"Wow." At a loss for words, Emily wiped her suddenly clammy hands on her thighs, pulling the fabric of her skirt taut.
"This has become her favorite subject, with me: 'Find a wife, give me a grandchild.'" Jacopo's gaze drifted to the open window, focusing somewhere over Emily's left shoulder. "I can't believe it, but she said it again, just now when she was leaving."
"Just now?" She trembled, her pulse already racing. She drew a slow, deep breath, hoping Jacopo wouldn't notice. The light sweat along the back of her neck felt positively chilly, now.
What is he leading up to? It can't be, can it?
Jacopo blinked and his eyes shifted to her face, regarding her in silence before a short bark of laughter escaped him.
"Oddio! Emily! I didn't mean that she wants me to marry you."
9) The gelateria's storefront lit the entire street in a soft neon glow, and the benches propping the doors open allowed artificially-cooled air to seep enticingly outward. Emily shivered when they entered, her eyes widening at the colorful display in oblong stainless-steel bins that filled the refrigerated cases. Dozens of frosted tubs of bright colors were lined up inside, the flavors they contained written in Italian or what Emily guessed was the local dialect.
She thought of Jacopo, speaking with the man in the restaurant in an utterly incomprehensible and somehow still more foreign tongue. The recollection brought with it both a hint of warmth and pull of longing for him.
Jenn debated her choices for an embarrassingly long time. Emily ordered by pointing out her selections and fumbling through her pronunciations of their names. The server was curt without being rude, and Emily was certain that, were Jenn not there being, well, Jenn, his patience would have run out much faster. When more patrons entered and Jenn still hadn't decided, the server simply took his spatula in hand, slathered some random selections precariously onto a cone and thrust it into her hand, waving her off.
"I got a freebie," Jenn said as they turned to go out of the shop. Her expression was childlike, full of surprise and delight.
10) It all passed in a whirl: the lion over the archway, the musty stairs leading up the chilly stairwell to the upper floors, even the plain front door which Jacopo heaved open and closed with a show of impatience. Emily clutched his hand in hers, focusing on his warmth in the darkness, her excitement warring with anxiety as Jacopo switched on the light in the foyer. He led her through the long corridor with the open windows, taking her past the grand sitting room and into unknown territory.
Now they stood in a room she hadn't seen on her visit earlier that day. The light from the foyer barely reached the doorway. Most of the illumination came from the windows, reflecting off the pale walls to give the room a hazy, unfocused glow. Heavy brocade curtains framed the windows; an aged Oriental carpet lay atop the shining marble floor, and an ornate wrought-iron bed frame draped with luxurious silk bedcovers stood against the wall, a gauzy canopy over the head of the bed shifting ghostlike in a scarcely-felt breeze.
Jacopo's bedroom resembled a museum display rather than a place to rest.
11) Her sleep-weighted eyes adjusted slowly. Still peering through her lashes, she spied Jacopo sitting in the wing chair next to one of the windows. In spite of the faint chill of the early morning he was nude, and a pleasant tremor shook her as she regarded his body from a distance. His hair was in tousled disarray, and her fingers tingled with a desire to stroke it into place again. His gaze fixed upon some midpoint between himself and the bed, but his face appeared utterly without expression.
A small shiver ran through her from head to toe, followed by a prickling of her skin so intense it pulled at the sheets under her.
The sheer curtains shifted in the breeze pushing through the open shutters. A stronger gust followed, flipping the edge of one panel up to obscure Jacopo from her vision, and she closed her eyes while the fine hairs of her arms raised as if someone had walked over her grave.
12) "Dimmi," he whispered, sliding his arm around her waist and picking up her cappuccino to sample it. "Tell me."
Emily took a deep breath and met his gaze with hers, then plunged ahead.
"I was wondering why you chose me over Jenn."
He laughed aloud, drawing a glance from the barista and two older women seated on the bench by the door. "This is what you looked so serious for? Dio bon!"
"Well?" Emily felt the blush rise to her cheeks, a flash fire on her cool skin. "It doesn't make any sense, does it? Men follow her around everywhere she goes, and then the best of the bunch chooses me?"
"'Best of the bunch'?" Jacopo echoed, and her blush intensified. "Emily, cara…" he framed her face in his hands, still laughing. "This, I think, is your true flaw."
My face? she thought, and swallowed the goony laugh that threatened to erupt.
13) Emily didn't need to see the bags beneath her eyes – she felt them there, swollen, containing the bulk of a restless night. The sleepless hours she'd passed alone were nearly enough to convince her that she'd started losing her mind.
The cardboard tube rested next to her as it had since Jacopo left, still unopened despite the loving caresses she'd imparted from time to time. Emily reviewed his giving of this gift over and over again, trying to guess what it might contain. She was certain it was one of the prints that had fascinated her in the shop, and this mattered, for some strange reason she couldn't quite fathom. She desperately wanted to guess the contents before opening the tube, but didn't know why.
It was just a little gift, right? Nothing special about it.
Except for what he'd said, when he gave it to her; "I just thought you should have it, after I saw you admiring it in the shop."
How did he see me looking at the prints? I was talking to the old man when Jacopo came in – I could swear it.
The prints had been lovely, though. One, of a bridge to the square where the shop itself stood; the other, a watercolor of Proserpina eating the pomegranate seeds that would confine her to Hades.
So which was it? The bridge, or Proserpina? Proserpina or the bridge?
The question echoed in her head, an all-consuming thought, until at last the sun shone on the buildings across the canal, and she slept and dreamed.
And there we have them: 13 Snippets from "Alternate Rialto".
I hope you've enjoyed them, and that they've made you a little curious about the novella itself.
And in the spirit of all things Italian and lovely, I give you this:
You can't go wrong with Raoul, now, can you? ;)
Ciao for now!